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Sep 17, 2008

Mexican clubs favored to dominate CL group stage

For the past week, we've all been told that you can't put lipstick on a pig. And if the CONCACAF Champions League is anything to go by, cosmetic surgery won't be much help either.

CONCACAF's latest attempt at crowing a regional champion began its second round Tuesday night, but don't expect the outcome to be different than that of the now-departed CONCACAF Champions Cup. A Mexican team will most likely walk away with the top prize, especially since a place in the 2009 FIFA World Club Championship is at stake, although Costa Rican powerhouse Saprissa might have something to say about that.

As for MLS teams, all hopes rest on the Houston Dynamo and a weakened D.C. United side after Chivas USA and the New England Revolution failed to navigate their way past the first round. And if that wasn't indignity enough, there are just as many USL-1 sides in the group phase as there are MLS teams. Pass the lipstick, please. Here's a look at the groups:

Group A -- D.C. United (U.S.), CD Saprissa (Costa Rica), Cruz Azul (Mexico), Marathon (Honduras)

Many are calling this quartet the tournament's Group of Death, but for D.C. United, it will be more akin to the Group of Slow Torture, with Tuesday night's 2-0 loss to Saprissa likely to be the first of 1,000 cuts. The Black-and-Red's attack has been hampered by injuries of late, and they'll need to heal up quick to have any hopes of reaching the quarterfinals.

Cruz Azul, whose bright start to the 2008 Apertura has them sitting third in the overall league table, are heavy favorites to progress, along with Saprissa, who have old hand Walter Centeno still going strong in their midfield. Honduran side Marathon could spring a surprise or two, especially if Brazilian Edmilson da Silva can continue his domestic goal scoring form in the CCL, but it likely won't be enough to reach the knockout phase.

Group B -- Houston Dynamo (U.S.), L.A. Firpo (El Salvador), UNAM Pumas (Mexico), San Francisco (Panama)

Houston remains MLS' best hope of getting a team to the quarterfinals, but with the playoffs fast approaching, coach Dominic Kinnear won't hesitate to make heavy use of his bench in the CCL.

The Dynamo is joined by UNAM Pumas, who are tied with San Luis for the overall Primera División lead thanks to the goals of forward Juan Carlos Cacho. Trips to Salvadoran side Luis Angel Firpo and Panamanian champions San Francisco could prove tricky for all concerned. Firpo will rely on the goalscoring of Patricio Barroche. As for San Francisco, several Panamanian internationals make up the backbone of its side, but the player to watch is top goalscorer Alberto Zapata.

Group C -- Atlante (Mexico), Olimpia (Honduras), Joe Public (Trinidad), Montreal Impact (Canada)

Currently on top of the Mexico's Group 1, Atlante look to have recaptured the form that made them Mexican league champions during the 2007 Apertura. That said, Atlante have found goals hard to come by so far, but Venezuelan international Giancarlo Maldonado remains the danger man in front of the net.

That means Honduran club Olimpia, as well as Joe Public -- conquerors of New England in the previous round -- will likely duke it out for second place. Marathon has been struggling of late in Honduras' domestic league, but will look to the goal scoring of forward Wilmer Velasquez to see them through. Joe Public meanwhile will rely on their electric pace in attack through Gregory Richardson and Kerry Baptiste.

The tournament's Canadian representative, the USL-1's Montreal Impact, will be hoping that their air-tight defense, led by former Dallas Burn goalkeeper Matt Jordan, will allow them to spring a surprise.

Group D -- Santos Laguna (Mexico), Municipal (Guatemala), Tauro F.C. (Panama), P.R. Islanders (Puerto Rico)

Like their Mexican brethren in the other groups, reigning champions Santos Laguna appear to be a lock to progress. Their play in the Primera División has been spotty of late, but the strike force of Vicente Vuoso and Christian Benitez should be enough to see them through.

The form book points to Guatemalan side Municipal and Panama's Tauro to battle it out for second place. But the Puerto Rico Islanders, who sit atop USL-1 and are managed by former FC Dallas coach Colin Clark, continue to play their Cinderella role to the hilt, defeating Tauro 2-1 at home Tuesday night.

Municipal have an experienced side that is well-versed in international competition. The ageless Juan Carlos Plata is still banging in the goals for "Los Rojos", but Municipal also has plenty of firepower in midfield, with Mario Rodriguez and Fredy Garcia their primary weapons.

Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPNsoccernet. He also writes for Centerlinesoccer.com and can be reached at eljefe1@yahoo.com.

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